A NNEST and employer on the equity debate

I know I’m lagging behind on this topic as many bloggers and ELT professionals have already written and spoken extensively about it, especially after this plenary by Silvana Richardson at IATEFL 2016. And by the way, of all the things I’ve been reading on the topic, I particularly enjoyed this article by Marek Kiczkowiak and this slightly older one by Michael Griffin.

I’m sorry if I’m just repeating what other people have already written, but I feel very strongly about this issue, so I decided to write my thoughts anyway. What’s more, I am in a very peculiar position to comment on this as I am what you would define a NNEST and at the same time I have hired teachers to teach at my (tiny) language school, so I also have the employer perspective.

The NNEST perspective

Yes, it happened to me as it happened to many of my NNEST colleagues. When I was looking for a English teaching job in China, probably 99% of job ads required US, UK or Australian passport. Impossible for me to even get pass the CV screening process as my nationality says “Italian”. To be fair, I have to say that I do have friends who taught English in China, but they all mentioned that being NNEST they had to accept lower wages and worse teaching conditions than their NEST colleagues.

This is of course only anecdotal, and I’m talking about 8-10 years ago. I’m sure things have been changing in China in the last few years. But it gives you an idea of the frustration and real discrimination some NNESTs have to face when job hunting.

The same happened in Italy a few years later, when an employer (by the way a non-native English Teacher) told me to my face that I was well qualified and perfect for the job, but she couldn’t hire me because the students requested native speakers.

The employer perspective

I have been an employer too and have managed all aspects of my own little language school, including teacher selection. Our policy from the start has been to privilege professionalism and commitment to the job rather than native-speakerism (and still we found plenty of great native teachers, which we also hired).

We have tried to advertise this on our website and to anyone asking, nonetheless the most recurrent question we have had from perspective customer is: ‘is the teacher native speaker?’, to which we invariably answer: not necessarily. The argument resonated with someone, but we lost many customers through this practice.

When this happens, I usually blame other schools with their ‘only native teachers’ policy. But thinking it through I also believe it is partly a problem of our school system. Students in state schools here are used to Italian teachers of English who seldom talk to them in English in class, and who end up teaching a grammar-only curriculum. Thus the association NNEST = boring grammar lessons taught in Italian.

This is not always the teacher’s fault, as the big classes and the school system itself make moving away from this anachronistic approach incredibly difficult. But it definitely fosters the ‘we only want native teachers’ mentality.

The good news

In conclusion, I have great hope for the future. Not only internationally many professionals and institutions are discussing this issue, but the echo is felt even here in this small town. Big language schools are starting to eliminate from their website the ‘only native speakers’ rhetoric and hiring teachers for their qualifications and not their L1. Students happy with their progress with NNESTs talk to their friends and relatives and start dismantling the myth that only native speakers can be good teachers.

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